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The interplay of light and shade

There’s a lark somewhere. I can hear her singing her tiny heart to shards, and I sweep the cirrus sky for the speck that will show me where she is. Hovering on the wind high above her nest, she’s invisible to my naked eye. And now I think of you. I was walking this very path, my heart in tatters, numbed by the senselessness. I wanted to write a poem to speak to your short and magical life. It seemed that first line came from nowhere.

It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. Years when the sun has continued to rise and set, the new leaves have burst yellow on the oaks every spring and the bluebells have nodded oblivious in their shade. Years when I’ve caught glimpses of you everywhere, yet known you’re no more visible to me than the lark. Years when others I’ve loved have left too, each departure opening the wound afresh, yet each of their leavings was more timely than your own.

I grumble at the excess light in the photo I’ve just taken. It’s my own fault. I got the settings wrong, and I’ve bleached out all the texture in the sky. I’m an apprentice photographer these days, fascinated by the interplay of light and shade. Too much of either and the shot will be out of balance, its subtle beauty lost. Darkness, I’ve discovered, matters just as much as light and often more. Without it, all you have is a blank page.

I grew up in horror of darkness. My parents left a light on at night in deference to my fear. It was a big concession from two people who’d lived through the blackout of the war. Darkness, like sex, was a subject much avoided during my childhood. I learned to sing of light from my first day in Sunday School. Take my little light round the world, I’m gonna let it shine … The shadows at the heart of the Christian message were often glossed over. A mystery too deep for a child. Nonetheless, Good Friday drew me like a moth, its love and cruelty beautiful and unbearable all at once. Love to the loveless shown … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I learned the beauty of the shadows long before I began to cry myself to sleep from the pain.

My mother lost her father a few weeks before my second birthday. At first she didn’t believe me when I told her years later I could remember him. He was dying of lung cancer. I can still see the room they took me to. I described it to her, and she had to admit I was telling the truth. My father’s mother died when I was five, so by the time my mother lost her best friend I was no stranger to grief. I was six years old, going on seven. I heard the phone ring before I’d even finished getting dressed. I heard my mother’s howl of anguish. My father came into my room a few minutes later. I was knotting my green-striped school tie in front of the dressing table mirror, as if it were any normal morning. I thought for a moment.

That means I’m never going to see her again, doesn’t it?

There’s no need for you to worry about that.

His words told me he thought me too young to grasp the concept of death. Years later I came to see he was afraid I did understand, and he didn’t want to deal with it. My mother’s grief, on the other hand, overwhelmed the household. It was a darkness of tears so deep it left no room for smaller mourning. Her friend had died of a heart attack we were told. It had come out of the blue, although she was barely thirty. It was a long time before it dawned on me that the true tale may have been a deal darker.

Embracing darkness doesn’t come easy. In a world obsessed with image, grief and shame are private matters, unless they’re plastered across the front page of a tabloid newspaper. It seems we love nothing better than the spectacle of other people’s pain and humiliation. Perhaps the vicarious suffering of a celebrity funeral, or the self-righteous glow of watching another’s fall from grace help us to hold our own shadows at arm’s length. Bad things are not supposed to happen in our well-manicured universe, so we make believe they don’t. At least not to us. Then the ultimate sin becomes to be caught in a moment of weakness.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon. I’ve been granted a couple of hours’ freedom and I’ve spent them in the bluebell wood. The wood has become my safe place during the dark days and I emerge into the sunlight like an owl at noon. I’m walking back to Mrs P’s, ready to serve afternoon tea, and reflecting that all the beauty I’ve imbibed over the past few months has done nothing to shift the knot of fear in my gut. I’m outside Sister Rose’s house, one of my many temporary refuges on this terrifying pilgrimage, when the light dawns. I’ve walked away from Charlie five times in the last two years. I’ve fled half way across England to escape. Nothing in my life is as it would have been if I hadn’t met him, and dozens of other people have been impacted by my choices, but I’m still trying to pretend none of this ever happened. I want to hold light without the darkness. I don’t want to admit my own shadow side. Not even to myself. Especially not to myself. I’m so afraid people will hate me for my darkness I’ve completely forgotten that those I love have seen me at my worst, and not one of them has turned their back. I’m the one who’s scared of my own shadow.

I’ve lived most of my life in mortal terror of upsetting people. What will people think? I grew up with these words ringing in my ears, the acid test of good or bad behaviour. The worst thing I could ever do was to offend someone, or to let them down. But in truth it’s impossible to please everyone. It was trying to please Charlie got me into this mess in the first place. You can’t be an angel all the time, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, and the world won’t end as a result. My path takes a new twist at last.

The lark stops singing and plummets from the wide light of the Hertfordshire sky to the shade of her nest in the undergrowth. She’s safe there. Too much light is a dangerous thing when you’re tiny and vulnerable. I take one last photo of the shadows on the footpath and turn for home. Not my own, but yet another temporary pillow on the journey. I remember you used to talk about living life in colour, and I understand a little better now. Colour and light shift from white to black and back through the whole spectrum of the rainbow. Everything belongs. And light without darkness is nothing at all.

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Of fish and bicycles

Poor, hapless Amy. She’s the kind of woman no red-blooded man would want to end up with. Quite frankly, she’s let herself go. She’s messy, disorderly and loud. She likes a beer and a raucous sing-song once in a while. She’s always singing round the house. She never has meals on the table on time. She doesn’t iron shirts properly. In fact she’s not seen the bottom of the ironing pile in months. She seldom gets her hair done, and never puts on lipstick to greet her man after a hard day at the office. Worst of all, she sometimes spends the whole day in a dressing gown. Small wonder her long-suffering husband has embarked on a torrid affair with his glamorous secretary. Georgie’s everything Amy isn’t. Efficient, elegant and self-effacing. The perfect little woman. She’s half Amy’s age and she’s all over Jim like a rash.

Yes, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching black-and-white kitchen sink dramas on the telly. How better to while away a tired hour or two when you’ve been blasted out of bed at five, ready to capture the dawn on camera? This particular film, Woman in a Dressing Gown, was made when I was three years old and the world was a quite different place. Everything seemed black-and-white back then, and I don’t simply mean the cinematography. I can predict the dramatic denouement before I’m half way down my first cup of tea. Two women fighting over the greatest prize life has to offer. A man. And not even a particularly good one. He lies, he cheats and when his son calls him out he resorts to physical violence. I’d get shot of him if I were you Amy. You’re better off without him.

Amy’s making an impassioned declaration of independence now, and I’m on the edge of the sofa cheering her on. Then Jim plays his trump card. What’s she going to do without him, he asks. What on earth will she live on?

I’ll get a job.

You can see the pity in their eyes, Jim and Georgie. Poor deluded Amy can’t even look after her own husband. She’s not going to last five minutes in the real world.

My mother-in-law was the world’s worst cook. She’d been a full-time housewife for the best part of thirty years when I met her, so you’d think she’d have got the hang, but in truth her heart was never in it. I loved my mother-in-law far better than her son if I’m honest. There were three things made Grandma smile. First was her grandchildren, the second her Tuesday afternoons at the local baby clinic, but the third was talking about her life before domestic drudgery. You see my self-deprecating mother-in-law, whose scattiness made her the butt of every family joke, had once held down a highly responsible job in the Education Department of London County Council. There she’d helped to organise the evacuation of thousands of children from wartime London by day, whilst standing fire watch on St Paul’s Cathedral by night. She’d seen a deal more active service than her husband, who’d spent his war on an artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Maybe Amy would shine too in a different environment.

For Amy and my mother-in-law marriage was a stark transaction. Grandma married late, and I think she had cause and perspective enough to regret it. Not that she once complained. One didn’t in those days. Amy was educated with marriage in mind. It’s hard to believe any parent would deliberately deprive their child of a good education, but the past was a different place. I’ve had more than one friend whose father decreed that the only skills she needed were cookery and shorthand typing. Shorthand? Where’s that going to get you these days? So there’s Amy, smack in the middle of telling Jim she doesn’t need him, when she comes up against the truth. In marrying him, she’s sold her life, her independence and all her dreams for a band of gold and a share in Jim’s wages. Without him, she’ll starve. Small wonder she and Georgie are squaring up to slog this one out. Sold a romantic ideal that was really no more than a precarious meal ticket, the lot of the average 1950s woman was not a happy one.

Of course, the lily-livered waster does exactly as I knew he would in the end. Georgie’s the loser, and no-one’s meant to feel sorry. She’s a woman who failed to understand her place. She got above her station and took what she wanted, although why the hell she wanted Jim is beyond me. She walks off the set, aloof and slightly sad. As befits a woman fallen from grace, she’s doomed to spend her declining years alone in the corner of a dusty office, with nothing but her shorthand notebook and a typewriter for company. As for me, I can’t help imagining how things might have been if Amy and Georgie had thrown Jim out on his ear and joined forces to launch Amy’s singing career. With her voice and Georgie’s organisational skills they couldn’t have gone wrong. Sadly, 1950s scriptwriters weren’t noted for thinking that far outside the box.

I don’t know its origin, but I first saw it scrawled on the wall of a toilet somewhere around 1976. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Some years later the saying was purloined by a purveyor of Irish stout, and I have to confess that I now own a chopping board with the words emblazoned across it. Be that as it may, I’ve never forgotten my first encounter. Need is not good for any relationship. You’re my world … sang Cilla Black. I was still in primary school then. Need feeds the romance industry. Need and possession. I’m your woman, and you are my man … I can’t live, if living is without you … But despite the promise of happy-ever-after, marriage has always been a harshly practical arrangement. All down the years women like Grandma and Amy have traded their lives for the promise, only to end up dependent upon that most unreliable of beasts: a man.

Money. In the world as we know it, money buys freedom.  Yet the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. St Paul’s words, not mine. Well not his precise words obviously. He didn’t speak English, although I’ve known people who’d be surprised to hear that. For something that doesn’t exist, money causes a lot of trouble. Take Amy’s conundrum. She needs Jim because he brings home the bacon. He also brings home tea, milk and sugar, of which they’re getting though an awful lot right now. During one melodramatic climax, Jim sends Georgie to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. This is a British film after all. But seriously, can’t he even boil a kettle?  Amy drags her twenty years of shared experience with Jim into the fight. Now, if he’s prepared to deceive her to get what he wants, I don’t think all that matters much to him. He’ll do it again in a heartbeat, mark my words. The only thing keeping the two of them in the same room is Amy’s dependence on his pay cheque. And the demands of the script of course.

I’ve written before about money. It takes more faith to believe in the existence of money than in a god who sits on a cloud hurling thunderbolts all day. Nevertheless, like children at a pantomime we suspend disbelief and clap our hands because we can’t picture the world any other way. In a moneycentric universe people become commodities, and Jim’s a pretty valuable commodity to Amy right now. Sadly, she has far fewer bargaining chips than he does, and those she has aren’t in good shape. She’s a terrible housewife, and she’s let herself go physically, to boot. All-in-all, she’s dismally failed to uphold her side of the marriage deal. Seeing as the screenplay’s by a man, I’m surprised he hasn’t written her out already.

Charlie’s attitude to money was refreshingly straightforward. Money equalled booze, and he’d think nothing of clearing every penny in the house for another drink. You know where you stand with a man like that, even if it is in the shit. His predecessor was more complex. It took time to understand those Andy Capp impressions he used to do – lying all day with his dirty boots on the arm of the sofa. Now I get it. He didn’t want to share his money with me, or with his children. The solution was simple. Don’t bring home any money. The traditional marital deal collapsed spectacularly, but instead of insisting on a new one I tried to uphold both sides single-handedly. The burden broke me. This is not the place to talk about the shifting boundaries of relationships in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That’s a post for another day. All I’ll say now is that a fish has far more use for a bicycle.

So, what of Amy? She’s got her man and they’re walking hand-in-hand to the rosy glow of renewed romance. I doubt it’ll last. Amy’s not going to fall in love with drudgery any time soon, and Jim’s highly likely to fall in love with the next pretty secretary. Money, need and fear of the unknown will hold them together for now, but they’re fragile threads. I’ll give it a year. Perhaps next time they’ll make the right choice. Then Jim’ll be on his bike.

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Sympathy for the devil

It had to happen sooner or later. After all, the truth will out. This week, along with most of the population of the UK, I’ve been outed as the waste of space I truly am. Yes, I confess I’m a low achiever. I’m not a millionaire, and apparently this means I hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own families and … know nothing about the outside world. To be honest, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not the part about not being a millionaire. Running a small enterprise in my line of work isn’t going to get me there any time soon. But up until yesterday I’d at least been able to believe that one of the reasons I wasn’t a millionaire was that I’d made a considered choice to put my family before my career. As this choice involved looking after three children and a man with a debilitating mental health condition on a shoestring budget for more than twenty years, while at the same time juggling a string of jobs in youth work, education and social care, I’d also fooled myself that I knew a fair bit about the real world. Good job Sir Alan Duncan was there to set me straight.

I really, truly wasn’t going to blog again this week. Yesterday’s post drove me to the edge of distraction. But while I was wrestling with a handful of the trivial matters that occupy the feeble minds of us low achievers – theology, domestic abuse and addiction in this case – brave Sir Alan was rushing to the defence of poor, beleaguered David Cameron, a man whose tragic fate it is to be caught in the wealth trap, according to Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Naturally, it’s well beyond the capacity of someone such as myself to empathise with a man like David as he struggles to look after his family in these trying times. I’m all eaten up with envy, and I hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them. As a writer and an English teacher I don’t much like that sentence either if I’m honest, but the words are not mine and I suppose my aversion merely serves to highlight my inability to enter into the spirit of achievement.

This is not the first time I’ve written here of the dearth of empathy that plagues the world of the rich in the twenty-first century. It’s a tough call to be wealthy, and money doesn’t always make people happy. Pity poor Ethan Couch, an American teenager whose ‘affluenza’ caught the sympathetic ear of a judge after he killed four people and delivered life-changing injuries to two others while driving erratically. A psychologist told the court he’d had such a privileged upbringing that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. I’m assuming his family paid said psychologist handsomely. Then there was Elliott Rodger, whom I’ve written about before. He killed six people and injured fourteen more, just because he thought he had a right to have sex with anyone he chose. Poor little rich kid. Yet in the face of all this, it seems the wealthy actually believe they’re better human beings than the rest of us. Jacques Peretti wrote for the Independent after spending time interviewing the super-rich for a BBC television series, The Super Rich and Us. He argues that the fallacy of moral improvement that comes with money has been used to justify inequality. The rich sincerely believe it, and they want us to sincerely believe it too, and guess what? We do. If we don’t achieve the unachievable, we’ve failed. It’s a rigged game. And there you have it, my fellow low achievers. Sir Alan, David, all their cronies and partners in crime, they sincerely believe they’re better human beings than you and me. And who are we to argue?

I’ll confess now that envy, combined with my soul-searing hatred of anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them (and of that appalling phrase) may have led me to make mock of the existential angst of the super-rich. In truth there’s good evidence that wealth blinds its owners to their common humanity, and to the suffering of others. An article published in Psychology Today in 2012 cited research that suggests empathy is more highly developed in us low achievers. We’re better at understanding one another because it’s a skill we need to survive when we know nothing about the outside world. David Graeber, writing in the Guardian in 2014, argued that working class people care more about their families, friends and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer. One of the smartest moves of those who consider themselves our betters has been to chip away at working class solidarity – crushing trade unions and ripping the heart out of working communities. The crisis in Tata Steel in Port Talbot has revived vivid memories of the destruction of the South Wales coal industry for me. But I’m a low achiever, and a woman to boot. What would I know?

Sometimes I just have to fall back on the frivolous issues that occupy my low-achieving mind. After all, even poor David’s not averse to a bit of theology when it suits his purposes. His Easter message this year cited the Christian values he likes us to believe our nation is built upon – responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, pride in working for the common good, and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and to our communities. I’m not sure how much of that goes on in your average tax haven, but who am I to comment? What I am sure of is that the religion he freely quotes to his advantage began in response to the teaching of a man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And yes, I know religion’s been manipulated by the wealthy down the years to keep simple-minded low achievers like myself under the thumb. David’s still doing it now. But you know what? I’d rather have empathy and solidarity than all the money that’s been salted away in offshore accounts in the history of the human race, and if that makes me a low achiever, so be it. I’m proud to be that way, because when it comes to the crunch, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul, their empathy or their connection to the human race?

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I’ve decided I’m god.

I look up from my book.  My teenage son’s on the sofa, eating corn flakes from a beer mug.

So you’re omniscient then?

What does that mean?

When I was sixteen I knew everything too. I’d rebelled a year or so earlier and told the Sunday School leader I couldn’t teach little ones about Someone-in-the-Sky now I no longer believed in His existence. I’d cried, even as I stood my ground. I loved those kids. There was Loretta, who flung her arms round me every time she saw me. Stephen, who begged to be swung upside down after class. Linda, who pulled faces and made me giggle. I’d never been a calming influence in the Sunday School room. Come to think of it, the other teachers were probably glad to see the back of me.

Back in the here-and-now, and a busy Friday in the Community Café. Phil’s face floats through the crowd as I’m delivering a jacket potato. His hair’s bright pink today, and I stop to compliment him. He seems to be sober as well, which is always a bonus.

Can I borrow a Bible, please?

Of course. There’s one in the church. Turn left out of this door.

I can’t go in there.

I’ve learned not to argue with responses like that.

Hold on a minute.

I want that bit about love. In Corinthians.

He clearly knows what he’s looking for. I find him a Bible and he heads for the garden. I’ve no idea whether we’ll see it again, but whatever happens it’ll be more use to him than it will be gathering dust in an empty building all week. Phil’s one of those people who vanish for months, then appear just as you’re thinking they’ve surely drunk themselves to death this time. He and the Charlies of this world are walking proof of the unpredictability of life, as if the weather on this sceptred isle weren’t sufficient evidence in itself.

Still, in the face of all that points away from it, we yearn for certainty. For permanence. Yesterday, today, for ever, Jesus is the same. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve sung those words I’d be a wealthy woman, and this morning I find myself singing them again.  Only this time they’ve been poached and ravaged by a writer of 1980s-style happy-clappy choruses. Oh, I hate it when they change things like that … The preacher today has a sharp suit and impossibly shiny shoes. He doesn’t look the kind of man who’d spend hours polishing, or sound that way from the impressive list of places he’s visited in the past few weeks. I wonder who cleans his shoes for him? His wife? His kids? Or does he just buy a new pair every time they get scuffed or scratched? He’s telling the god-hates-sin-and-Jesus-had-to-die-so-he-could-bear-the-sight-of-us tale. Followed up with god-loves-us-so-we’d-better-get-our-act-together-or-we’ll-end-up-in-hell. I’ve had this sold to me as ‘good news’ for most of my life. Somehow it still feels more like emotional blackmail.

The preacher says god doesn’t change, and here I find myself starting to agree with him. Yet my own concept of god these days is quite different from the Someone-in-the-Sky I rejected forty-seven years ago. I can’t help reflecting on the trouble I’d be in if I’d stuck with the vengeful monster who policed my childhood. He (and it’s always ‘He’ with a capital ‘H’ when it comes vengeful gods) took careful note of my bad thoughts, as well as all those nips of port from the bottle that was unaccountably hidden in the back of my teetotal parents’ larder. He sat up there in the sky, clutching a big stick and gleefully awaiting His opportunity to beat me. Of course, being omniscient He never missed a trick. I’d surely be beyond the reach of redemption these days if I hadn’t let go of Him.

I’m reminded of a sentence from the passage Phil wanted to read. Now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror. Being unchangeable is a dangerous thing in a poorly-grasped concept. My idea of god becomes THE GOD, and GOD doesn’t change, ergo it’s my job to set you straight if you think differently from me. That’s much the way it works, and it’s a shortish hop from there to Westboro Baptist Church. Shorter than you might realise if you’ve never been thrown out of a fundamentalist house church. It’s always seemed odd that we market god as infinite and beyond comprehension, while at the same time cramming her into neat packages of easily-grasped and immutable formulae, to be thrust down the throats of all comers.

Come to think of it, being unchangeable isn’t a great quality in anything or anyone less than infinitely perfect. A little over ten years ago, I left Charlie’s predecessor. After thirty-two years and a little over two months of deeply unhappy marriage I’d woken up and realised no matter what I did, nothing was going to change. I was looking another thirty years as bad as the last in the face. You don’t get that long for murder, a kind friend pointed out. I walked away with all the misplaced bravado of someone who has no idea what she’s getting herself into. I just needed a bit of time to rediscover myself. What was I thinking? For heaven’s sake, I’d done Buddhism when my children were small. I knew about impermanence, yet I’d wholly failed to grasp that the ‘self’ I was expecting to find might be a deal more elusive than I’d imagined. Happily, life saw me coming and took a sledgehammer to what little remained. I’ll always be thankful for that.

From the shiny-shod assurance of the preacher to an article about ancient Chinese philosophy on the Guardian website the penny’s begun to drop. I’m sixty-two years old. I have far less certainty now than I did at half the age. Things I once knew for sure have turned out to be mysteries more complex and wonderful than my wildest dreams. Who’d have thought a disaster could bring so much good? That a woman afraid of her own shadow could begin to be an extrovert? Or that she might discover new ways to relate to her well-worn body this late in life? That she’d start to blog about these things? Blog? What kind of a word is that? In the midst of all this, my long-clutched certainties have crumbled to a puff of dust, and I’ve never been so happy. Change and decay in all around I see. The words of another old hymn, untampered-with by the modernisers this time. They don’t write ’em like that these days, and more’s the pity. Such words are hard to stomach in a world set on certainties, but they’re the naked truth. Nothing is permanent. Nothing’s unchangeable but the infinite. So it’s up to us to learn to ride the waves.

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Tracing rainbows through the rain

Monday morning, and the weekend tourists have abandoned the beach to the gulls. The wind tugs at my hood. Even the brick-red Devon sand seems workaday grey. I hold a hand over the camera lens to keep it from the drizzle. The tide’s on its way out, and the gulls stand ankle-deep in the shallows preening as the sea rolls and snatches just short of their haven. I watch the waves rise and curl. Fall and spread their lace of foam. Retreat and fade. The pattern repeats yet nothing’s ever quite the same. The sea’s timeless and constantly changing. It was here before me. It will be here long after I’m gone.

There’s a time for everything, and I’m in another time now. The room’s twilit and two faces look down at me. They’re telling me something I already know. I’m so sorry. The pain in their eyes is not even a pale shadow of the grief I’ve carried these past nine months. I want to tell them I knew all along, but I don’t think they can hear me. I stare at the ceiling and rack my brains for comfort. A lifetime of Bible-reading and I can’t remember a single word. Not one. It all becomes patchwork. I’m in the late afternoon sun now. They bring her to me and lay her in my arms. Her lips are faintly blue, otherwise she’s picture perfect. I’ve never held a newborn who didn’t nuzzle for my breast. Never seen a dead body before. Why have they dressed her in someone else’s clothes? Her forehead’s cool as I kiss her goodbye. My soul hurts. I ache to go with her. It’s then the words I’ve been searching for come back to me: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of humankind, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. People come. People go. They cry. They take my temperature and my blood pressure. They give me painkillers. Is what I’m feeling some kind of peace, or am I simply numb? Maybe I’ll never know.

The woman’s blonde, she’s angry and she’s in my face. Jools snarls across the counter in the Community Café. She’s not a happy bunny, and my back’s well and truly up by the time she’s done, so I’m none too thrilled just moments later when a customer comes to complain that she’s upset someone in the garden. Some people are born to trouble. I balance a tray of cups on the counter, smooth down my apron and step outside.

She’s at the end of the garden, and a few feet away a woman’s in tears, a puzzled-looking baby on her knee. To cut a long story very short, Jools has delivered a lecture on parenting and it didn’t go well. It seems a bit rich that a woman with no social graces should pass judgement on others, but I’m a peacemaker, it’s been a hectic shift and the last thing I need is a mouthful of invective. Jools stabs her cake with a fork and glares at me.

She was letting that baby eat dirt.

That’s her business, isn’t it?

I can’t just sit and watch.

The last time I saw that look was a year ago. The look in Jools’ eyes now, I mean. We’d reopened from the summer break and Jenny was at the counter. She’d been heavily pregnant when last I saw her. Now she wasn’t, and there was no sign of a baby.

Do you want to see the photos?

She pulled out her phone and showed me her newborn baby girl. She told me how beautiful she was, and how proud she was to be her mum. Then I met her eyes. If I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget what I saw. Of course, we both knew the truth. No social worker anywhere on earth would have let Jenny keep her baby.

When Sarah died, I met nothing but sympathy. People I barely knew crossed the street to tell me how sorry they were. At a school cake sale someone thrust a pot of Body Shop lotion into my hand. Two friends cleaned my house every Monday while I recovered from a messy caesarian. I don’t imagine any of that happened for Jools or Jenny. And now I can’t help but remember a mother in the same town who lost her baby a year or so before me. I remember the looks, the rumours and half-whispered hints. She’d ignored the doctor’s advice. It was her own fault. Maybe they murmured the same things behind my back too. Who knows?

Back from the sea to the warmth of breakfast in an old-fashioned seaside hotel. I’m talking to a friend, and she begins to tell me her story. I’ve known for some time that her children have disabilities. I hadn’t known till now that she adopted them. I see her grief for the children she never bore all these years on, and I know it’s the pain of every parent who’s ever lost a child, even if that child was never so much as conceived.

It rained heavens hard the afternoon of Sarah’s funeral. The undertaker was a friend and refused to take a penny for the tiny, white coffin they carried down the aisle of the chapel. I trace the rainbow through the rain, we sang. At her graveside the rain ran down our faces as if we didn’t have enough tears of our own. I stood alongside that gaping wound in the earth and read the committal myself. I recited the blessing I’d heard at every infant christening of my Methodist childhood.

“The Lord bless us and keep us,

the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.

The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us peace …

because no-one else will.”

It felt like the defiance I needed.

Home sweet home, and I’m trawling through my photos of the sea. I’ve taken so many, and barely a dozen worth keeping from the perspective of an artist. I decide to take out my pictures of Sarah. They’re pink-faded Polaroids. They have no artistic merit, yet I’d delete every photo I’ve ever taken from my laptop rather than lose one of them. I’ve cried so long over those photos, and here I am again. The sound of rain on the window brings me back into the room and I glance over my shoulder. Arched high and defiant over the streets and houses is the most glorious rainbow, and I know I’m going to tell the story at last.

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The good Samaritan and the black squirrel

I’ve lost the plot. I know this because I’ve just opened the curtains of a sunny spring morning to be confronted by a jet black squirrel, swinging upside-down from the bird table outside the kitchen window. There’s no such thing as a black squirrel. The beast doesn’t exist any more than does the gorilla Mrs P fed with leftover sausages yesterday lunch time, or Michael Jackson, for whom I was so nearly obliged to make a cup of tea last week. There are no black squirrels. I scridge up my eyes and count to ten slowly. It’ll surely be gone when I open them. It’s not. Instead it’s sitting there, feeding its little face with the remains of last night’s supper and thumbing its nose at me. I consider running for the camera, but just as if it’s read my mind it ups and skedaddles to the safety of the cherry tree. That tree’s so overgrown it could house a whole pantheon of mythical beasts and no-one would be the wiser. I sigh, and do the first sensible thing I’ve managed this morning. I send a text message to my son, who knows more about these things than I do: Is there any such thing as a black squirrel?

It turns out there are black squirrels in the world after all. I’m retrieving the precisely-timed bowl of porridge from the microwave, and wondering whether adding extra salt would help balance the sodium deficiency that’s had me up all night chasing babies out of Mrs P’s bedroom, when the reply arrives: They’re mutant grey squirrels apparently. You live and learn. I grab the Daily Express from the letterbox and head upstairs with breakfast on a tray. Mrs P smiles beneficently as I set it before her.

Do you know dear, I thought you had a large, pink, floral object on your head.

She seems delighted to have caught herself out in a hallucination. It’s going to be one of those days.

A good many years ago I had a really nasty bout of gastroenteritis. It was ten weeks after I’d married Charlie’s predecessor, and we were living the dream in a damp little cottage in the shadow of the Westbury White Horse. Mobile phones were the stuff of fantasy. The nearest call box was fifteen minutes away up a steep hill, and the bathroom was on the backside of the moon. I’d lost a stone in the first two days of the illness, and I’d been vomiting continually for a week. I weighed less than eight stone when they finally carted me off to the local cottage hospital. The lady in the bed opposite looked a hundred through my nineteen-year-old eyes. She was confused and unhappy. Nurses came and went with brutal efficiency as she cried and called out. They were young and strong, and they shouted and scolded. I wondered how they didn’t realise they’d be old themselves one day. Did they think she’d always been that way?

The world I grew up in had a very different moral compass from today’s. In the wake of two World Wars, Britain was about being fit for heroes to live in. The NHS was not quite six years old when I was born, and I was shocked to discover that not long since, people had died of treatable illnesses simply because they were poor. I couldn’t get my head around that, any more than I could figure out how the refugees who fled the onslaught of World War II could have deserved their suffering. Weren’t people’s lives more important than money or politics? We humans like to think we’re a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom. A civilised and cultured species, capable of rational thought and sound moral reasoning. It turns out moral reasoning can be a double-edged sword though, and somewhere during the 1970s, the moral code I’d absorbed as a child began to do cartwheels.

My first daughter was just a year old when we moved house on Thursday 3rd May 1979. It was the day Margaret Thatcher was elected. I still remember sitting in the midst of the packing boxes in tears as the early results were declared. What kind of a world had I brought my child into? The following morning Mrs T stood triumphant on the steps of Number Ten and quoted St Francis of Assisi. Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope. Talk about standing the truth on its head. I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian at any stretch back then, but everything in me screamed against her twisting the words of a man who lived his life from compassion, empathy and peace. Growing up in a Methodist church, I’d imbibed more sermons on loving your neighbour than cups of tepid tea. I didn’t think much of tea as a child. The Good Samaritan was my role model. The Golden Rule – treat other people the way you would want them to treat you – was my life plan. Now I found myself adrift in a world where it was every man for himself, there was no such thing as society and devil-take-the-hindmost had become morally acceptable.

I’ll admit now I didn’t much like John, but Charlie’s predecessor found him good company, so I was obliged to make tea and be polite from time to time. John was one of a peculiar new breed of 1980s Christian. He believed wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. If you prayed hard enough and believed strongly enough, you could have anything you wanted. Maserati. Villa in the south of France. Private jet. I’m not sure how that one worked for St Francis or Mother Teresa. This kind of approval from God was dependent on nothing but your level of faith. Empathy and compassion cut no ice with John’s god. I used to like to throw the odd spanner into the works of his self-assurance.

So, what about the Good Samaritan then?

He put down his teacup and looked at me pityingly. He enjoyed his belief that women were inferior beings. I persisted.

Didn’t Jesus say we should behave like the Good Samaritan?

His smile grew more patronising. It turned out I’d completely misunderstood one of the best-known parables in the New Testament. So far as I could ascertain from his rambling exposition, the object of this parable was not to teach us to do good to others, but to encourage us to go out and get beaten up by robbers so others could do good to us. Who knew? Doesn’t that just go to show what can be done with a good bit of moral reasoning? To this day I regret not having had the presence of mind to ask whether he’d tried putting this priceless piece of theology into practice.

And so, via Mrs Thatcher, Ayn Rand and the Johns of this world we’ve arrived at Donald, the logical conclusion of a code of moral reasoning where money trumps empathy. Money is considered the inevitable outcome of hard work and moral probity, even though it can be argued that Donald Trump might be wealthier now if he’d invested his inheritance and twiddled his thumbs all his life. Work that doesn’t attract money is invisible and without value in a world where everything has its price.

The trouble with the values I grew up with – compassion, empathy and caring – is that they can’t be quantified. You can see money. You know where you stand with a price tag. Who can put a value on consoling a distressed old woman, or chasing a hallucinatory dog out of a kitchen? On baking birthday cakes, bathing scraped knees, making home-made play dough, or reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe until you know the half of it by heart? Who’ll tell me the price of a cup of tea with friends, the value of a slice of cold toast on the way home from school, or how much all those gingerbread men were worth? Who can say working a year with no pay for a project whose funding was axed was pointless because no money changed hands?

There are those who think I’ve lived foolishly, and if wealth is the measure of success I have to admit they’re right. I’ve cared too much. I’ve ended up long on crazy stories but short on cash to the edge of destitution. I can’t quantify compassion, and black squirrels pin down more readily than empathy. Yet if all the above is foolishness I’m proud to be a fool, and that’s something no political, economic or moral tide will ever be able to sweep away.

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Cinderella, angst and silver boots … on becoming more hamster

I think I saw you the other day.

The woman across the counter’s studying the pyramid of Pukka teas by the till as she speaks.

Do you have a pair of silver Doc Martens?

I have to confess I’ve never owned silver DMs. In another life I had purple ones I didn’t wear, but never silver.

Oh well, it must’ve been somebody else.

A part of me muses as I pour boiling water onto her teabag. I like the idea that she thinks I might be the kind of person to wear silver DMs. In fact, the concept of silver boots appeals more than I want to admit. Maybe I could treat myself when the bank manager and I finally negotiate a peace agreement. She pays for her tea and a slice of vegan chocolate cake, scoops her toddler off the counter and heads upstairs. I wipe my hands on the faded black apron that keeps cake crumbs off my work clothes and smile at the next customer.

Deep down I’m a show-off when it comes to clothes, but that’s a side of me the world’s seldom seen. Over the years I’ve gone for comfort. A tedious succession of grey-sack tops, flat shoes and utilitarian knickers has passed through my wardrobe. When I’ve bought more adventurous outfits, they’ve most often skulked on a hanger for months before heading to the nearest charity shop. It wasn’t always thus. As a child I loved dressing up. My mother dyed her wedding dress a deep royal blue in the hope of putting it to use as an evening gown. Then along came the three of us: myself, followed three years on by twin boys. Mum’s hopes of dancing the night away in elegant company were quashed by steaming nappies and squalling children. I inherited the gown, along with the remnants of her dream. A yellow scarf transformed my dull, brown waves into golden ringlets and I was a forgotten princess. Cinderella, with the clock forever at five to midnight.

Ah, Cinderella. If ever there was a fairy tale fraught with angst, that was the one. It wasn’t long after I started school I began to realise something was wrong with me. On my seventh birthday, my parents caved in to my pleading for a pet and bought me a pair of hamsters. Looking back, I think the experience was intended to be educational. It certainly was for Dad and Mum. Hamsters are solitary creatures by nature. There’s only one reason for two hamsters to be in the same space and the female has to be in the mood, or heaven help the male. After two days of continuous strife the male, who was considerably the smaller of the two, was dog-eared and dejected. Dad was dispatched on a life-saving errand to the pet shop for a second cage.

Notwithstanding, the educational experience continued. We read ‘How to Look After Your Hamster’ from cover to cover. We discovered that female hamsters are receptive to masculine attention fairly regularly, but the only way to tell is to introduce the male and see what happens. If she kills him, it probably wasn’t the right time. From that day forth for the following week, the poor creature was unceremoniously dumped in his tormentor’s cage every evening. Finally the moment came. Instead of trying to gouge his eyes out, she turned her back and tipped up her tail. It was as close as I ever got to that birds-and-bees talk other children have. In due course, thirteen baby hamsters in a wide range of colours appeared in the female’s nest. I was entranced. Aside from anything else, how had two rather ordinary brownish parents managed to produce such a rag-tag-and-bobtail of offspring?

To my delight, I was allowed to choose a baby to become a classroom pet. I chose a beautiful, creamy-coloured female. Each weekend a different pupil got to take her home and look after her. I found myself the centre of attention. After all, I’d gleaned a lot of information from ‘How to Look After Your Hamster’. I was more than happy to give others the benefit of my wisdom. All was well until Julia Cook’s weekend. Julia was petite, fragile and blonde. The polar opposite of me. I delivered the customary instructions and thought no more of it till Monday afternoon. My mother picked me up with a face like thunder.

How could you be so unkind?

I hadn’t the smallest idea what she was talking about.

How could you speak to Julia like that?

The mystery unravelled as she marched me home. Julia’s mother had decided my instructions constituted bullying of her precious daughter. I was mortified. I already had far too much experience of the sharp end of bullying. I was abnormally tall, my teeth stuck out and my feet were too big. None of these were good in a seven-year-old girl in 1961. I’d long made up my mind I never wanted to make anyone else feel the way I did. Now I stood accused of just that. Worse, it seemed to be precisely because I was bigger and uglier than my perceived victim. The clock struck midnight, Cinderella’s glass slipper fell off, and she was revealed as a fraud. All because her feet were too big.

Come the end of another shift in the community café, Kellie and I are cooking full English breakfast for the other staff. She’s on toast, I’m frying eggs. Kellie and I have a lot in common when it comes to relationships, and she’s on the brink of yet another train wreck. I’m pretty sure she knows it. She’s already sent him back to his mum once. Now he’s hanging around, tail between his legs and promising things will be different. Yeah, right. He’s in his early twenties, he already has two children with different mothers and she found him sleeping rough in the local skate park. There were bruises on her arms within a week of their meeting. I do not like this man, but age and experience have taught me telling Kellie’s not going to help. If we women could only be a little more hamster sometimes. Instead of men, Kellie and I are talking clothes. Kellie’s style is individual to the point of aggression and I can’t help but admire her panache. I flip the last egg.

I had a pink phase after I left Charlie.

Oh, no. I don’t like pink. Far too girlie for me.

The internet tells me Benjamin Franklin first came up with the idea that nothing’s certain except death and taxes. He’s right for sure about the two, but I’d add a third: change. I don’t mean the loose coins Google pulls up from the back of the sofa to pay its taxes. I mean the absolute certainty that nothing’s going to stay the same for ever. We hate change. We hate difference too. Together they run death a good second when it comes to things we’re most afraid of. After spiders of course, and heights. The measures we’ll take to avoid change can be alarming. Thirty-two years of incessant verbal abuse, rather than bite the bullet and walk away? Crazy.

I’m in a shoe shop with Charlie. Charlie loves shopping. He throws money round like water when he’s not necking vodka. He also loves to have absolute control over everything I buy. If I choose a green jumper, he’ll tell me blue’s better. If I admire flat shoes he’ll tell me I should have something with a heel. The one thing we’re agreed on is pink. Pink is far too girlie. To be honest, falling in love with silver sandals was never going to go well. He growls.

Silver? Totally impractical.

That’s the end of the matter, so far as he’s concerned.

Charlie’s trouble was he never did like women. I don’t mean sexually. He simply hated the fact I was different from him. No matter what, the things that made me distinctively female were always going to be beyond his comprehension. He was never going to have full control, and that made him fear me. There are a lot of men like that out there, and the fear too often translates into violence. Take this Roosh V and his ‘neo-masculinist acolytes, advocating rape then running away at the first hint of a threat to their own safety. See what I mean?

Vive la difference they say. In truth, la difference has caused me more angst even than Cinderella. This world’s all measured out by men, and different is less, as I’ve found to my cost. Pink is far too girlie, and to be a girl isn’t a good thing. How often are boys told not to be like girls?

You run like a girl.

You play football just like a girl.

Don’t cry. Crying’s for girls.

Is it any wonder they fear and despise us? Even we learn to think the less of ourselves, to hate pink just because it’s far too girlie. Eve Ensler says being a girl is so powerful that we’ve had to train everyone not to be that. The sheer power of human emotion scares us, so we suppress it. It’s OK for us girls to overflow once in a while. After all, we’re feeble and we can’t help it, but true strength remains impervious come what may.

From school bullies to men who hate women, I learned to conceal myself as far as possible down the years. Some women use fashion or make-up to do this. I used men’s shoes and utilitarian clothing. I grew so close to genderless that come the day of my own daughter’s wedding I felt as if I was wearing drag. Thus the real adventure of recent times has been to find the woman who lost herself so well. To discover who she is at heart, and to learn to love her: height, teeth, feet, flab, belly and all. Not to mention reclaiming the assertive seven-year-old who never said boo again, and all because of a hamster. Pink clothes, silver boots, burlesque corsets or nose rings. Who cares? Whatever it takes to get her out of the rut’s just fine. And I’ll confess now, I’m enjoying every minute of the journey.

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Greenwash … or the road to hell

Yesterday morning was crisp and cold. Classic January. It was minus six I’m told by friends who have sophisticated electronics in their cars. Bloody freezing my hands told me by the time I got to the cash machine on the corner. I found my gloves and decided to take the scenic route into the city. The sky behind me rippled with dawn as I cut through Rosa Parks Lane. A man came running up the hill towards me on Stokes Croft. Ragged dreadlocks. He looked like he’d slept on the street. He fist-bumped the guy in front of me, smiled a good morning to the girl on my left.

Hey, I’m real. I’m not frozen!

Sometimes it’s just good to be alive.

Today the sky’s a sludge-grey blanket. No sunrise, just a reluctant dispersal of darkness. This city was European Green Capital last year. The hoarding at the crossroads shouts at me as I pass.

2016 – It Doesn’t Stop Here

Red-trousered greenwash, someone’s graffitied in bright red letters. Fellow Bristolians will understand the reference. The air’s catching at my throat as I head through the heart of St Pauls. This neighbourhood parties late and wakes late. There’s almost no traffic so early, but a fug of fumes still hangs in the air. It smells like gridlock, with not a vehicle in sight. Further on and I take a short cut through the shopping centre. It’s eerie when the crowds aren’t out. A briefly-abandoned temple to consumer culture.

On the bus at last, I notice again today that the engine cuts out every time we stop. Yesterday I thought there was something wrong with the bus, today I can’t work out if the vehicle’s designed this way, or whether the driver’s been instructed to switch off to reduce pollution. Good on someone either way, but given the quality of the air, I can’t help feeling it’s shutting the stable door about forty years too late. I get off the bus at the top of the hill. The air feels cleaner and I expand my lungs. At least my grandchildren aren’t inhaling so much poison up here. I think back to the smogs of my childhood. The smell of coal smoke through the wet wool of the scarf my mother wrapped tight over my nose and mouth as I left for school. Everyone knew the London air was poisoned by the smoke of thousands of fires. You saw the smuts on walls and pavements, and the evidence was there in your starched handkerchief every time you blew your nose. Today’s poisons are more subtle. You can see where you’re going of a morning, and the chemical haze that shrouds the city as I look down from the crest of the hill doesn’t show up in every tissue I use.

I’d hate to be a politician. People have suggested down the years that my views on feminism through pacifism to green issues and social justice might make me suited to the role. I can’t think of anything worse. Imagine having to make huge, life-changing decisions on behalf of millions of people. I’m a people-pleaser. I consult the TV schedule before I phone my mother, in case I mess up Holby City. It takes more brass neck than I’ll ever have to assume you know what’s best for everyone else, and something worse to act as if you know how to achieve it. You surely have to be a control freak. A sociopath. I’m not certain who first suggested anyone that power-hungry should automatically be debarred from public office, but think Donald Trump and you’ll see the wisdom.

People who crave control have an eye to the big picture. They’re often pathologically incapable of understanding the effects of their actions. Empathy isn’t in the repertoire of the CEO or the career politician. They just don’t need it as much as those of us better connected with reality. I’ve no doubt Tony and George W expected go down in history for taking out Saddam Hussein. They will of course, but likely because of the havoc they caused rather than as saviours of the world. When it comes to the crunch, freedom ain’t worth the paper when there’s no water, no electricity, your kids are getting shot by marauding gangs and ISIS is being born.

If you look back a paragraph or two, you’ll see I said I’m a people-pleaser. I said it as if that made me the opposite of a control freak. I’m clearly better suited to politics than I pretend. After all, if you’re to have so much as a sniff at power you’re going to need to please one hell of a lot of people. People who fund you. People who vote. People who own newspapers and produce television programmes. You’re going to have to engage the full panoply of the people-pleaser’s armoury. You’ll need to lie, schmooze, compromise and manipulate. You’ll have to pretend to be someone you’re not, to believe things you don’t, to hate things you love and to like people you despise. If you do it well, you’ll forget where you came from in the first place. We people-pleasers are nothing if not control freaks. Think it’s all about selfless concern for others? Sorry, what we really want is for everyone to think we’re wonderful. Needs must, and a full-blown people-pleaser will stand every principle he ever had on its head for a single taste of that.

For so long now I’ve been wringing my hands over the callous disregard David Cameron and his cronies have for ordinary people. I’ve expended gallons of virtual ink railing against injustices perpetrated by this government and the last. I couldn’t understand how they slept at night while ninety people a month were dying after being assessed as ‘fit for work’ under their new guidelines. I didn’t get why they would accuse food banks of scaremongering. I was confused by their attempts to redefine child poverty. I didn’t know how David Cameron could stoop low enough to joke about ‘a bunch of migrants’.

On a sunny Saturday I’m drinking coffee in good company when the conversation strays into politics. It often does when I’m around.

I think David Cameron’s just a bit stupid.

I’m going to stop right here and confess the thought had never occurred to me before. I’ve always assumed our politicians to be intelligent people who had major issues around integrity. It had never entered my head to see it any other way. But what if David Cameron’s just plain thick? What if he can’t see that his policies are appalling and cruel? What if he doesn’t have the capacity to grasp the consequences? It’s a far from comforting idea, but at least it makes sense.

In all my life, I’ve never been more convinced of my own rightness than I was in my thirties and forties. Questions and uncertainties were swept under the carpet. I was grown up. I had life figured. Joining an eighties-style house church didn’t help. I swallowed right-and-wrong-us-and-them-hellfire-and-damnation stuff by the bucket. Believe six impossible things before breakfast? Toss me a dozen and watch me choke them down. It was people-pleaser heaven for a while, but it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. My certainties were often off the church’s piste. I simply couldn’t stomach their monstrous god, whose delight was in sending sinners to hell. After all, some of those sinners were the people I loved best and I didn’t want to do heaven without them. The edifice finally disintegrated when the pastor’s wife got it into her head that I was embroiled in a lesbian affair. With no right of reply, I was ignominiously thrown out of the church. I’m ashamed to say my inner people-pleaser was mortified anyone could even think it of me.

The last time I spoke to said wife was when she pronounced her judgement on the stillbirth of my youngest daughter. I think she was one of those people whose world view never was ruffled by reality. Maybe I’d have ended up the same way if life hadn’t backed me into so many corners. I’m not proud of my self-righteous phase. I was immature. I thought being an adult was about having all the answers. I did a lot of damage. Now I’m a grumpy old woman who has no idea what she’s talking about, and I’m proud of that.

All the same, I can’t help wondering whether a lot of politicians aren’t stuck in just that self-righteous phase. David Cameron’s not yet fifty, and George Osborne not forty-five. From where I’m standing they’re little more than children. Neither has experience much beyond the world of power and politicking. Why am I surprised by their lack of intelligence? Their world’s about schmoozing, manipulation and arguing black’s white to get what you want. Small wonder they’re out of touch with a reality where flesh-and-blood people get hurt by their decisions.  Where our beautiful earth’s dying from their refusal to bite the bullet of man-made climate change. Why would they be bothered by the suffering of people who were never going to vote for them in the first place? Why worry about green crap? It’s only going to annoy people you need to please. When you know all the answers, why should you go through all the hassle of putting stuff before parliament rather than slide it past on a statutory instrument? It makes perfect sense when you’re blindly convinced you’re right.

There are daisies in the lawn outside the building where I live. It’s January. The Zika virus is on the march. Daisies and mosquitoes thrive on climate change, people less so. Still politicians are failing to offer any coherent response. There are good intentions of course. Greenwash comes in trousers of many hues. There are climate change conferences and European Green Capitals. It pleases people to think something’s being done. No matter whether our main concern is the economy, global warming, the refugee crisis, the NHS, something else or all of the above, we’d prefer to believe our political leaders when they tell us they know best. The sad truth is politicians are human though, and as such they’re no better than the rest of us. They’re idols with feet of clay: immature, self-righteous, people-pleasing and not very bright to boot. No matter how full of good ideas, they need to be held to account, lest they forget they have no right to the power of life and death over the rest of us. After all good intentions, greenwash included, are the paving on the road to a place nobody wants to go.

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ESOL, King Canute and mopping up the mess

It’s a miserable afternoon. Classic English seaside weather, and not so much as an ice cream van to redeem it. We’ve eaten a Bengali picnic in the middle of a shopping precinct. I can barely move for all the food that’s been pressed upon me. Now we’re back on the coach and headed along the Sussex coast to Rye. The back seat’s packed with teenage girls, still passing food back and forth. At every glimpse of the sea they rush to the windows, chattering like the murmurations of starlings that curl and weave over the passing marshland. Rye’s the last stop before home. The staid older students head off in search of antiques and fish-and-chips. The girls beg me to stay with them. They want photos at every opportunity. They’ve not seen a place like this before.

The rain holds off just a couple of hours. It’s starting again as the coach pulls out of the car park. The girls are singing Bollywood classics by the time we join the motorway. They know every note. Every word. Samaya dances in the aisle to the swish of the windscreen wipers. I think the older students are wishing the coach floor would open and swallow her. What none of us knows is that this is her last taste of freedom. The pressures of marriage and parenthood are about to close in on these girls. Samaya, I’m never going to see again.

I worked in the language school for four years. Hope, it was called and I like to think that was what it brought, at least sometimes. I loved my job with passion hard to describe. When I first fetched up there it was nothing short of a miracle I could teach at all. Charlie’s grip was absolute then. I could barely string a sentence in real life, and I learned to switch my phone off when I taught, just to stem the tide of abusive texts. As soon as I stood in front of a class, I came alive. I loved connecting people. The priceless moment when a beginners’ group first grasped the words ‘coffee break’, or the smile of delight when two students discovered they could speak to each other at last. Women from across the globe bonded over custard creams and childbirth stories. A Bengali lad adopted a French nun as his substitute mum. Naz brought chai masala and boiled it in the kettle, so everyone’s coffee was slightly spicy for the rest of the week. Lifelong friendships were forged. We shared international meals, circumcision celebrations and afternoon teas. We organised a fund raiser after the earthquake in Haiti, and sipped Turkish tea while eating English cupcakes. It broke my heart when the EDL held their first rally in Luton. They shut down the town centre one Saturday. I spent an entire week explaining, and apologising for the idiocy of English extremists. And we went on that wonderful coach trip to the seaside.

Of course the idyll had its dark side too. There was the Afghan schoolboy who talked of nothing but guns. The Bengali teenager who was bussed two hundred miles a night to slave in a restaurant kitchen. He fell asleep on the desk most days. I met mail-order brides. May, from China, was deeply miserable. She disappeared as soon as her English got good enough for her to complain. Cynthia, on the other hand, gave her purchaser a run for his money. He definitely bit off more than he was expecting to chew when he handed over the fee. She used to tell me about Thai friends who hadn’t been so lucky, or so feisty. Her best friend worked all hours in her owner’s sandwich bar. He wouldn’t let her learn English in case she ran away.

Halima still worries me now. Her husband brought her to the initial interview, and I just knew. When you’ve been where I have you develop a sixth sense. She was quiet and shy. Highly intelligent. She’d been a teacher somewhere in north Africa. She broke down in the classroom one Wednesday afternoon. Why did he beat her still, now she was six months pregnant? He’d taken her passport. He’d told her he’d have her deported and keep her baby if she breathed a word. What can you say about a man like that? I tried to put her in touch with people who could help, but she was far too scared. My boss came in with a cuppa when she’d gone.

You think you’re just teaching them English, don’t you?

That’s what I’m here for.

You’re not, you’re mothering them too.

I know, I know. But that’s who I am. It’s why I was never going to be a millionaire, and just why I’m spitting nails this morning. Managers. CEOs. Chancellors of the Exchequer. Prime Ministers even. They think in strategies, grand plans and long-term goals. They don’t see the effect of their behaviour for individual lives. People like me? We work the front line, battling to clean up the mess they trail in their wake, each of us playing our little King Canute to the rolling tide of destruction.

Aside from my age, the main reason I struggled to find work when I moved to Bristol was the ongoing reduction in government funding for ESOL classes. Hope had been a church-based school. I’d taken a pay cut even there because money was tight, but at least the premises were comfortable and rent-free, and as I may have said before I’m not high-maintenance. In 2012 teachers were losing their jobs or having their hours cut all over the country. Last year all public funding for ESOL classes was removed. I’d love nothing better than to resurrect Hope Language School here in Bristol, but the very people who need the classes are those who can’t afford to pay, and even low-maintenance needs to eat once in a while.

David Cameron seized and devoured a whole packet of custard creams yesterday. His pronouncements on the imperative for Muslim women to learn English were at best ill-conceived. Lazy and sloppy, in the words of Baroness Warsi, who’s not a woman I’d normally have truck with, they seemed designed to appeal to all those stereotypes that reinforce the worst kinds of prejudice. I’ve worked in a community with a large Muslim population. I’m well aware there are controlling husbands and families out there. Halima’s husband’s a Muslim. Rabina came to just six classes when she arrived from Pakistan, all under the close supervision of her sister-in-law who spoke perfect English. But May’s married to a white Brit, and Cynthia’s friend’s owned by one. What are we going to do for them? Oh yes, nothing. Helping them won’t win the UKIP vote.

If I’m honest, the whole thing puts me slightly in mind of something I wrote when George Osborne demonstrated his munificence by ploughing £15m of tampon tax into domestic abuse services he’d recently de-funded. Quietly cut a vital service, then make a song-and-dance about giving back far less than you took away. Hope no-one notices it was you who messed up in the first place. Job done. The icing on the biscuits was that Dear Dave managed to shift the blame onto Muslim women themselves, for not using a service that didn’t exist. My own experience suggests that the vast majority of people arriving in the UK are only too happy to learn English, irrespective of gender or religion. English is the most useful language anyone can speak. And why would you choose not to speak the language of the country you live in? The biggest barrier to learning is funding and facilities, not a lack of enthusiastic students or teachers.

The most worrying aspect of this salvo is the way the Prime Minister’s tapped visceral fears by implying a connection between inadequate English and radical extremism. Admittedly it’s a very real connection if you look at hardcore British right-wing pages on Facebook, but I don’t think that’s quite what Dave means. Today’s news suggests he wants to dress his policies as empowerment for oppressed Muslim women. Much though I hate to agree with Baroness Warsi, she’s not wrong when she says that to threaten deportation if women fail to learn English is a very unusual way of empowering and emboldening them. Seriously Dave, if you can’t do better than this, I think you’d do well to admit you’ve no idea what goes on in the real world. It pains me to have to quote yet another Tory woman, but you really are a posh boy who doesn’t know the price of milk, and I’m not the only one out here who’s heartily sick of mopping up the mess.

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Mirror, mirror … on showing off and the gift of experience

The last of the weekend dried and put away I emerge from the kitchen with the first coffee of the morning. The mirror’s on the wall directly in front of me. I can’t help but stop and admire it. Procrastination and power-tool-paranoia left it languishing in bubble-wrap behind the armchair for more than three-and-a-half years. Now here it is, placed to perfection by a man with a drill, and looking exactly the way I’d always hoped it would. So good. There’s just the one thing makes me hesitate, and that’s the picture enclosed by its heavy, wooden frame.

At first I’m inclined to be critical. For the better part of four years, the only mirror in the place has been above the bathroom sink. The lighting there’s artificial and kind, and I can’t see most of myself anyway. The light in the living room this morning’s cold and grey. It hides nothing and the image is nigh on full-length. In addition, I can see the abandoned decorating tools in the hallway, the marmalade pan on the cooker and the wilting poinsettia on the bookshelf in the background. The woman looking back at me is not young. She’s wearing glasses and a shapeless sack of a top, and she could do with a cut-and-blow-dry, although without the glasses she likely wouldn’t be able to tell you that. I want to be depressed. Then I take another look.

My hair’s silver, aside from the purple streaks. Not grey, silver. I used to tell people it was platinum blonde. A woman in the hairdresser’s last year asked how I got it this colour. She’d been trying to dye hers just this shade, she said. Took me sixty years, I said. Then there are the curves. I haven’t seen them in a while. Hips broad enough to have cradled four babies and breasts that got to feed only three. A face wise and sad enough to have weathered that storm. There are the hands that have created, eyes that have seen things no-one else will and the belly I battled so long to lose and wound up loving, its hidden scars all whispering stories of their own.

In a little over a month I’ll be sixty-two. Quite how that’s happened is a mystery to me. My grandfather retired when he was two years younger than I am now. He took to a bungalow in the country and refused to leave his armchair. It’s not an option I’d have, even if I wanted it. Nevertheless, I sometimes think our society would prefer me to be invisible. I came home to Bristol in May 2012. Half a lifetime of domestic turmoil and some unwise choices had left me little to call my own. I moved in on May Day Bank Holiday. Tuesday morning I was on the doorstep of the Job Centre at nine. I’d polished up my CV in advance. I’d called every language school in the city, and most had responded with enthusiasm. It was the right time of year to be looking for work as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and I knew it. Everyone takes on teachers for summer schools and I had exactly the right experience and qualifications. I’d sent out the CV a dozen times and more. Not one single response. I sat across the desk from my new Employment Advisor.

Do you think it’s my age?

I can’t tell you that.

Of course she couldn’t tell me. It’s been illegal to discriminate on grounds of age since 2006. It’s also been illegal to discriminate against women since 1970. This didn’t prevent us from earning on average 15.7% less than men in 2014, or in more stark terms working almost two months of the year for nothing. A bit of a double whammy if you happen to be a woman of slightly-beyond-a-certain-age.

I don’t consider myself high maintenance. I’ll confess to a lingering penchant for books and CDs. I like good coffee and the odd glass of red wine. I’ve even been known to buy new clothes from time to time, although almost never at full price. In general however, I don’t have an expensive lifestyle. I decided to opt for self-employment. At least I couldn’t discriminate against myself.

I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to selling my skills. Pride comes before a fall, don’t run before you can walk, all that jazz and I’m scuppered before I’ve started. I have a steady few students and a part-time job that keeps the wolf just shy of the threshold. Nonetheless I live with a growing sense that, false modesty or no, I might be worth a little more than this. Oddly, looking in the mirror in the harsh light of morning, I feel the sense stir again. I love teaching. It’s performance art and regardless of whether you believe me, I’m nothing if not a show-off. Every class pitches me into agonies of stage fright. That’s one thing that’s not got better in all these years. The moment I open my mouth the fear’s gone and words flow like magic. I end on an adrenaline high. What could better?

Yet, if I’m honest, there’s one thing makes all that pale and pointless. Writing. Writing comes from the core of me. I’d not cling long to the remnants of sanity if I didn’t write. Objectively, I don’t think I’m too bad at it either, although I realise I’m the person least qualified to comment. Now and again even my internal editor, the worst critic bar none, will look at a piece and say: Hey, that’s not so bad. Better still, one or two people whose judgement I respect tell me they like things I’ve written. I hope to god they’re not saying it because they think I’ll hate them if they speak the truth.

Most of the time this blog doesn’t attract much attention. I’m crazy happy if fifteen or twenty people read a post and over the moon if one gets thirty hits. If nothing else it means I’m not sitting here talking to myself all the time. Thus I was stunned to come home last Thursday and find 170 people had been reading a post from last December while I’d been out. I’ve no idea how they found it, and for all I know every last one of them thought it was crap, but at least they read it.

On the basis of my not being the worst writer ever, I’ve pitched to one or two publications over the past year. Nothing major, just local rags. The response? Zilch. A glance in the mirror and I wonder if they just couldn’t see past that old woman in the grey sack. Age is a formidable barrier. In an image-obsessed society first impressions can be deadly, and my pitch has always been honest. I’m a feminist idealist, who writes from the dubious wisdom of sixty-plus colourful years. What else can I be? I don’t do buzzwords, soundbites or jargon. I do truth as I see it, and these days I’m no longer afraid of the consequences. Truth always has more than one level though. The old woman’s no more than the surface. The curves and the scars go deeper. I know my own heart now. I’ve lately grown to love it, and that’s a gift only experience can bring. Sometimes you have to know what you’re searching for before you’ll see, but look long enough into the mirror and you’ll find it’s all there.

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